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Glorification, Vilification Or Harmless depiction? How The ‘Joker’ Became So Controversial

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker in
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker in "Joker"
Niko Tavernise

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Even before audiences had seen “Joker,” which stars Joaquin Phoenix as the titular rage-filled villain, the film became a lightning rod for violence on screen.

Early reports that “Joker” glorifies a violent, dejected man—whose story arc is not dissimilar to a mass shooter’s, some critics have argued—resulted in families of the victims of the Aurora, CO movie theater shooting sending a letter to Warner Brothers requesting that the studio speak out publicly against gun violence. The weeks leading up to the film’s release have also been marked by safety warnings; the FBI and the U.S. military have investigated threats of possible gun violence at “Joker” screenings. In response, the Landmark Theatre chain announced that its ban on face masks and toys in theaters (a standing practice) would be extended to include all costumes while “Joker” is in theaters. 

Yet in a statement defending the film, Warner Brothers argued that critiques of “Joker”—particularly, fears that its violence will stoke a response in particular viewers— are largely overblown. Todd Phillips, who directed “Joker,” stood by the film’s brutality, saying that by portraying violence realistically, viewers could feel the “weight and implications” of it. Some critics have argued that “Joker” uses violence toward an ultimately positive end, while others claim it is inappropriate to connect social phenomena to a work of pop culture in the first place.  

Do you think the controversy surrounding “Joker” is justified? How important is it to consider social context when you watch a film? Call us 866-893-5722.


Christy Lemire, film critic for KPCC, and co-host of the ‘Breakfast All Day’ podcast; she tweets @christylemire

Wade Major, film critic for KPCC and